# How can a language be prevented from evolving and drifting?

So language drifts enormously over time. With the English of today, little drifts happen fairly quickly in slang, but over long periods of time languages drift and change and move, even changing important parts of grammar and pronunciation over hundreds of years; there’s a reason there’s an Old English and the one we have now, and Spanish and French rather than Latin.

So what would prevent this from happening completely in a culture? What would make ancient texts still easily readable by people hundreds of years in the future, and make groups of people isolated from each other after developing their language able to understand each other when reunited generations later?

Thanks!

• nothing that still leaves you with a functional society.
– John
Apr 14 '20 at 3:58
• You may be grossly overestimating the speed of language change. It is perfectly possible to preserve intelligibility of the written language over a few centuries or let's say twenty generations or so. Go to Archive.org and find an English book printed in the 1600s, and see if you can read it. (Hint: you can.) Apr 14 '20 at 5:41
• I'm certain I've seen a question here pretty close to this one. I can't seem to find it, though.
– VLAZ
Apr 14 '20 at 12:35
• Ah, but we still have Latin! And largely unchanged. Methinks that therein lies part of your answer. Apr 14 '20 at 16:26
• short answer: kill it. The only languages which don't evolve are the one nobody use daily. They can be used for academic or specific purposes but the people still using it use a frozen version.
– Hoki
Apr 15 '20 at 8:24

In France, there is an authority known as Académie Française, or in English, "French Academy". It is made of forty members, known as les immortels, or "the immortals". The Académie was founded in the 1600s to define the French language, and to eliminate the "impurities" of the language.

Today, they don't have any legal power (though they traditionally have the President of France as a patron), yet they are sufficiently respected that when they announced that the formal word for email was "courriel" (a portmanteau of the phrase "corrier electronique" or "electronic mail"), formal writing changed to reflect the decision.

However, casual speech does not always reflect the standardised French as defined by the Académie, and that speech can drift.

Let's imagine a language that is standardised, but is not used casually. There is actually such a language already in existence: Latin. Latin is a "dead language", in that there are no native Latin speakers, and no one actually knows how the Romans spoke it. It is, however, spoken by linguists who study Latin, students who learn Latin in school, and by scientists, since many scientific names are given in Latin.

If we discount the coining of new proper nouns and borrowing old ones from other languages as linguistic drift (I mean, when I say "My friend Xerses", you know I mean "Xerses" as a name, even if you've never heard the word before), then Latin rarely changes.

And I say "rarely", because it does change. When people make new inventions, some get new nouns and verbs associated with them. For example, a "car" in Latin would be a "currus automobilis" or "autocinetum", according to Wikipedia (Latin).

The only way to prevent the creation of new words by this route is if humanity ceased to innovate. Perhaps innovating is no longer enjoyable or economically viable. Perhaps there's nothing left to innovate. Either way, no new concepts means that humans will no longer seek to put new concepts into a language.

Combined with a practical reason to know a language but not use it casually (perhaps, as @Charlie Hersberger suggests, it is used to interface with (poorly programmed – they forgot /internationali(s|z)ation/... sorry, regex joke) computers, or perhaps the language is used to cast magic), then Latin may actually become a language that has no linguistic drift.

Of course, if everyone gets an implant at the age of 5 that stimulates the brain in the right way to make them rapidly learn the "correct" way of speaking Latin, and gives a negative stimulus if they speak it incorrectly, that too would be sufficient.

And if a language is defined for its use in a specific role (for example, Aviation English), then it's possible that it is already static.

Many thanks to AlexP for a factual correction on the Latin translation for "car".

• @AlexP I'm relying heavily on Wiktionary, so it's not entirely surprising that I'm wrong somewhere. Thanks for the correction! Apr 14 '20 at 6:18
• Biological names are not technically Latin, but merely Latin-esque. Most modern species names would be gibberish to an ancient Roman. Apr 14 '20 at 14:40
• To add to this, the Spanish language has something similar, it's called the "Real Academia de la Lengua Española", it tries its best to regulate the Spanish language all over the world and it has helped to prevent a lot of distortions to ta language spoken by 20 countries. Apr 14 '20 at 21:47
• "corrier electronique" should be "courrier électronique". Apr 15 '20 at 0:10
• By analogy, this is how technology avoids the same problem. A committee puts together a detailed specification that defines the standard definition of "Technology X", and anyone wanting to use that technology must follow it. You're free to deviate from that standard, but you can't call it "Technology X" any more. An official language spec/committee and a culture that values the preservation of the "standard language" could avoid linguistic changes for quite a long time.
– bta
Apr 15 '20 at 18:33

Your language is enforced as a standard that is linked to something that doesn't change

In a sci-fi setting, computers

computers can make language not shift. Use slang, incorrect pronunciation, or new terms and the computers just won't recognize it and tell you to repeat the phrase properly. If your characters are robots then their language doesn't change because their communication standard is at the tight bound of what is possible with their hardware, so there is no reason to change. Also, upgrading might mean death, so all the robots of that generation will stay locked into that language.

In a magical setting, magic

You enforce the language with magic. "On fleek" sounds a lot like the self combustion spell, so any new words or pronunciations not in the language will lead to you either discovering a new spell to show off to everyone, or being the last person to discover a spell. People used to think that tritones would lead to devil summoning, maybe the same is true but with language. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tritone

In a normal setting, The government, or the last pop culture trend for all time

Dictators or advanced social programs can enforce language. In 1984 new speak is used to ensure people only say what you want them to say, and deviation is heavily discouraged. By making not using the language, or even not using the language correctly a crime, people will be forced to follow your standard. On the other hand, a completely conformist movement could also force this. If 99% of people decide to follow the same language rules, and carefully adhere to them to make it so they are all the same, then these changes are unlikely to happen, and nearly impossible to make stick.

• computers and governments in real world failed to prevent language evolution. When is the last time you used Commodore 64 BASIC?
– L.Dutch
Apr 14 '20 at 3:30
• I would add that if the computers controlled education, this would be even more pronounced (pardon pun). Apr 14 '20 at 4:41
• Sure, we may not use Commodore 64 basic for modern computers, but what languages does the Commodore use? Still just the same as when it came out, and the few that could be retro fitted. one day no one will bother porting languages to the commodore, and the languages on the commodore will be static, and no longer drifting, so all the Commodores will speak the same language forever. Apr 14 '20 at 5:09
• I'm reminded of the profession of "programmer-archaeologist" from some of Vernor Vinge's novels, whose task is to dig through the thousand years of layers and dead languages that make up the generation ship systems. Apr 14 '20 at 12:18
• A counterargument to the 1984 "new speak" approach is that in the novel, the language is not intended to stay constant - it is introduced specifically so that the government can change the discourse as they see fit. Apr 14 '20 at 13:03

Religion based on a common sacred text and standard interpretations.

All sermons, prayers and rituals including musical celebrations would be conducted in the same fixed vocabulary derived from the sacred texts of old, the common speach of the people would reflect this in their everyday lives.

As to interpretations, the various seperate communities would need to have a convocation of priests meet and affirm their faith and re-enforce the interpretations of old, and argue out how those apply to any new events of moment. Acolytes would be apprenticed to and further educated by experienced priests instilling the widom of ages from the ancient texts.

The adaptations that people would inevitably come-up with over time to overcome seasonal changes in their lives would be all covered by the cannon of pre-existing religious texts.

Isolated communities would inevitably adapt to their particular environments, innovations happen: a brighter coloured die for fabric, a better knott for a fishing line, a new way of making rooves waterproof using baked clay coated in tree resin - and the people who make them. These adaptations would demand new words.

New words.

These would be made-up according to the rules of linguistic agglutination:

Words may contain different morphemes to determine their meanings, but all of these morphemes (including stems and affixes) remain, in every aspect, unchanged after their unions. This results in generally more easily deducible word meanings if compared to fusional languages

The upshot of this is that the new words would all be based on the familiar vocabulary from the sacred texts in such a way as to be recognisable. The Germanic languages already somewhat function in this way, it's how words like Bezirksschornsteinfegermeister - "District-chimney-sweeper-master" (chimney sweep) came about.

• that did not stop Latin from falling out of usage.
– John
Apr 14 '20 at 3:57
• Latin was never the language of the common people even in Rome, that was Greek. The church preciously guarded the secrets of the texts hiding behind the Latin which only they read and were educated in, 'till the advent of printing brought about greater literacy. Ahh, stop the populace from learning to read, that's important too I guess. Apr 14 '20 at 4:03
• @Anewnormal. The common people in Rome didn't speak Greek, they spoke Vulgar Latin (which was originally very similar to Classical Latin, but later diverged). Greek was the main language of the eastern half of the Roman Empire, but never of Rome itself. Apr 14 '20 at 5:57
• I don't really see what point you are making with translating "Bezirksschornsteinfegermeister" as "Soot-covered men with top hats and ladders". "Bezirksschornsteinfegermeister" is a compound noun consisting of the words for "district", "chimney", "sweeper" and "master". Apr 14 '20 at 12:30
• Arabic is a good example of religion preventing the language from diverging too far. Contrary to Peter Shor's claims most Arabic dialects are mutually comprehensible and some like Algerian can code-switch between being a very thick accent to very close to standard Arabic. There is even an example of what a version of Arabic that diverges might look like: Maltese is a European language that descended from Arabic but was not influenced by the Quran due to the population being mostly Christians. Apr 14 '20 at 20:46

## Immortality

The main source of language shifts is the noisy process of teaching and learning language. Kids learn a language and adapt it slightly, and then teach it to their children including their modifications. Elders grumple about the grandkids using the language differently, but they get replaced with by kids eventually.

However, a culture with extremely long - or effectively infinite - lifespans could have these respected, important elders maintain their "style of speech" forever and ensure that every new generation adapts to them. Imagine the Academie Francaise 'immortels' literally staying there forever and ensuring that every kid is taught the language as they learned it thousands of years ago, and that every official document or petition or printed book is using the language in the way that they prefer.

• ...reinforced by the fact that those elders with a net tendency to accumulation of capital will end up owning nearly everything. Apr 15 '20 at 8:13
• This won't work. I'm in my 50's, and the way I talk is completely different than it was back in the 1970's. I pick up (and happily use) new terms from younger people all the time. You'd not only have to have people be immortal, but also keep time from passing. Apr 15 '20 at 18:49

I want to elaborate on how you can achieve that goal by normal means based on two real world examples of languages, which go into that direction:

Farsi and Icelandic.

Icelandic is interesting, because the language does exactly what you demand: Modern Icelanders are able to read and understand 800 year old sagas without problem. This has been achieved by rigorously applied linguistic purism: They actively purged their language of foreign loan words and kept it close to the language used in their old literature. New words are instead created by compounding old words.

The second example, Farsi, is similar in this regard, because of the profound influence that Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, Iran's national epic, had on the language. Basically the Shahnameh established a gold standard of what the persian language ought to be, that nobody is willing to change.

What you can derive from those examples are is the following:

Your language requires an anchor: An era of literature or a piece of (maybe religious) literature, that is so profoundly important to that culture, that it is powerful enough to anchor the language for centuries. The associated culture in turn must have the means to enforce this language standard, most likely by the means of education. Obviously a high literacy rate would be extremly helpful for that purpose.

The associated culture also has to be culturally "tight" enough to not drift apart. A counterexample would be Arabic: Whereas the arabic language used in the Koran is certainly a gold standard, in reality most arabic speaking countries have developed their own versions of arabic, that aren't even mutually intelligable anymore, just because the arabic speaking world is way too big and culturally diverse.

Generally dialects etc are NOT a hinderance in a culture that has some form of formalized education: I myself have learned standard german in school whereas I usually speak in my regional dialect or, since I was raised in a small village, even Low German, which is quite different from the standard language.

So as a short summary I would suggest:

A culturally tight and geographically limited nation state, in possession of a piece of literature, either their national epic or their holy book, that defines their whole cultural identity and is the immutable basis of the language that is taught in school, as well as a population/government that possesses the willingness to preserve the language as it is out of cultural pride or religious importance.

• +1, but I would like to add that Farsi actually has developed a distinction between formal and informal language (or call it between book-like and vernacular), with some vowel shifts, different endings in verb conjugation and some simplifications on commonly used verbs. And Farsi also likes to use foreign loan words, even for everyday expressions like "thank you".
– Jan
Apr 15 '20 at 22:46

# It's Impossible... Kinda...

Maybe you need to declare it to be so, not worry about how or why, and continue writing the story you actually want to write — because depending on how absolutely you want to prohibit change, there is no believable way to make this happen (all due respect to the Académie Française, even they haven't kept French pure to the extent suggested by this question).

Over the course of hundreds or more years...

• Existing words will experience changes in connotation, leading to changes in definition.
• Dialect is impossible to control.
• Borrowed words from other languages are inevitable — especially where science is concerned.
• Without amazing, fundamentally unbelievable effort (see my answer to this question) no language can be preserved for a lengthy period of time. Obviously, the higher the tech level when you start the easier it is to preserve, but that just means you need more time to corrupt it. It will eventually be corrupted.
• Finally, it's impossible to preserve a language in a society where new things come about—where change is possible. This article has fun pointing out words and phrases (new meanings to old words) that didn't exist in English 40 years ago. Words like Dramedy, Voicemail, Ecotourism, Infomercial, Wannabe, FAQ, Meh, Bling, and Millenial. If your society isn't 100% static, the language must change with it.

I was tempted to upvote Peteris' answer: Immortality. But I'm not convinced even that could completely preserve a language.

In summary, this is an issue that falls into the concept that I call a technology dichotomy. It's like asking how to have flying cars without having ever first invented the wheel or how bumping a single toggle switch can suddenly turn on something as complex as a time machine, leading to the silly inventor mistakenly finding him/herself in the 12th century (you'd be surprised how much SciFi has used this trope). An entirely static living language is a dichotomy—because life changes.

Having said that...

Your question sounds really absolute, but I'm wondering how absolute you really intend it to be? It's not just hard, it's sometimes downright impossible to read English from the 1500s (much less earlier). There comes a period in any culture that stands the test of time when something like the Académie Française happens; when language becomes standardized to minimize the effects of regionalization and to minimize the burden on an increasingly complex bureaucracy. It's happened to English, French, Japanese... pretty much every language where there's a significant population.

An example of a language where this hasn't (completely) happened is Saami. The Saami language was originally a dozen or more dialects so disparate that people living in different valleys had trouble speaking together. It's slowly becoming standardized — primarily as parents realize their children are growing up in a really big world where opportunity demands they be understood (dang! Another reason languages change!). So even then, a language that might be spoken by only 80,000 or so people is slowly changing anyway due to outside pressure and, frankly, a desire of the Saami people to not lose their culture entirely (once a language is no longer spoken, the reality of the culture dies very, very quickly).

So, having said that...

The older a language is, and the more complex or technologically advanced a culture is, the more likely the basis of the language will be stable enough that no matter what changes do occur, today's people can read what was written hundreds of years ago.

After all, no native English-speaker today would have trouble reading the U.S. Constitution — and it's 230+ years old.

On the other hand, stuff written by fundamentally illiterate people in the 1930s is fundamentally unintelligible today. So the "officialness" of the source is a big factor. (And to be honest, I've spoken to illiterate people today who are almost impossible to understand. I've spoken with educated people having inner-city accents that I can't understand. I've listened to modern Scots and, bless them, I love them!, but they're just speaking in Tongues.)

Summary

So, if you're looking for absolutely no change in meaning, available vocabulary, dialect, etc., the answer is, "it's impossible."

If you're looking for substantially no practical change over only hundreds of years, the answer is, "kinda, if your culture is complex enough."

Edit

I'd like to mention Orewell's 1984 and, not just its Ministry of Truth (the source of Newspeak), but the fundamental dystopic bureaucracy of Oceania. The Ministry of Love was said to be so invasive in people's lives that it knew each individual's worst fear, which would be used against them in Room 101 to break down their resistance to the State. If you use a totalitarian government to this extent (where the language isn't living but constructed and enforcement occurs via the "thought police" on an individual level), maybe... maybe you can create a living but static language. But even the character of Syme... disappeared... and changes in the language lived on in history and rebellion. Maybe even this wouldn't be enough—but it was a fun read.

# Formal/informal bilingualism

Similar to the answers that mention Latin, you could have a society which is raised to speak two languages: a formally-controlled unchanging/littlechanging variant and an uncontrolled vulgar common tongue. The natural propensity to innovate and evolve language could be contained to the common language while everyone is still taught the controlled language. They would likely end up as two different languages over time, but would think that if the standard of bilingualism was high, they wouldn’t be too different.

## Enforced stability

Recorded samples, or a being in power that has lived across that span of time, and continues to speak the language the same way.

Exposure would have to be pervasive, or you'd end up with something like High English and Low English. One formally, and one for Regular Folk.

An AI or divine entity could probably converse individually with the entire population at the same time, or at least everyone at one of the conveniently located terminals/altars. Recorded lessons (of whatever format) could be part of a years-long schooling provided to everyone. I suspect that language might drift a bit, but always stay relatively close to the original.

## Born with it

Language is imprinted on your people at (or near) birth. It could be a genetic memory thing, or brain tapes while they grow in the cloning vats, or whatever. Could be something like Ghost Brigade, or some "knowledge crystal" or whatever.

• I suppose it could be something like 'born with it' that is intrinsic. Communication pheromones. Apr 15 '20 at 18:11

The only way is to get everyone to quit using it. Language is change, and the mere act of a person interpreting it in a different context (even if they are an older version of the same human) is going to color how they understand and use it.

And you wouldn't want it any other way. New things and concepts are being discovered all the time, and without coming up with new words or terms for them, we simply wouldn't be able to communicate (or even reason) about them.

When a language quits changing, we do have a term for that: An extinct language.

Now if you want to try to retard change, this question over on the linguistics site goes into that exact topic. My reading of the top answer there is that we really don't know what governs the rate of linguistic change, but it may be down to having a small isolated population (that isn't isolated from each other so the dialects drift apart, of course)

Instead of locking innovation in your culture(s), take a look at Arabic. At school, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is taught, but is not used in real life. People speaking different Arabic dialects mostly can't understand each other, but they can do so through MSA:

Since MSA is very similar to Classical Arabic, it allows people to read texts from the 9th century AD without much problems (according to the Wikipedia).

After that, I guess you'd need a way to "justify" teaching a version of the language that no one in the community uses. It could be faith-based (eg "to read the true words") or commerce-based ("it's the language all merchants from othe re regions use and it allows us to thrive"), for example.

I would like to emphasize an aspect of @AuronTLG's excellent answer: the basic tool needed in practice to forward the continuation of a language is public schools, with grammar courses, dictionaries; and generally a methodology of how the language should be spoken, written and -- most importantly -- taught to students.

The reason why written/spoken classical Latin survived so well throughout the Middle Ages and the modern era (at least until the French government pronounced it "dead" at the end of the 19th century), is the quality of the education system that supported it. Latin was considered an obligatory part of any educated person's education, with a big difference from today, since educated people were supposed to be fluent enough in that language to write scientific or philosophical texts, or at least to read them without difficulty.

Conversely, Latin was replaced in common usage by its vulgar versions, i.e. the Romance languages (Italian, French, etc.) because ordinary people, who often did not have access to basic education, developed their own dialects and oral traditions. This created, around the 13th century, the litterary debate between classic Latin and vulgar languages.

By contrast, classical Greek survived extreemely well during the Middle Ages, thanks to the quality of public schools throughout the Eastern Roman Empire (mainly Greece and Anatolia). The solidity and continuity of that public education system (at least until the fall of that empire) explains why Greek survived as language practiced by whole populations. Obviously, not everyone went to school, so dialects and local variants were left to evolve. Indeed, the evolution of the modern version of Greek, called demotic[popular] is explainable in good part by the collapse of the education system of the Roman Empire under Ottoman rule. Nevertheless, the continuity is there, so much so, that a tolerably educated Greek should today be able to read the koine (standard) Greek used in the New Testament, which is nearly 2000 years old; and with some more effort, could read fragments of archaic Greek in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, which are several centuries older. This truly extraordinary achievement boils down to the continuity of the public school system*.

We see the same phenomenon at play today with English: the garden-variety of English that is spoken in businesses today throughout the world is a lingua franca (also called link/trade language). Nevertheless, the English classes for natives, the pretty goodESL courses for non-natives, plus an enormous quantity of sound archives since the early 19th century (particularly movies) make sure that what we call modern British English or modern American English will remain fairly stable in the future.

And that is the main issue, if one wants to keep a language stable: to keep references (in addition to grammars and dictionary, as well as reference texts, we now we have audiovisual references), to keep the broad public education system working (not limited only to elites), so that the vulgar (i.e. general, popular), language does not not diverge too much from the classical one.

In fact, the experience of modern Hebrew (which is basically a two thousand years old written language reissued as a popular, spoken language), shows that it is perfectly possible to put back a language "on track", if one wishes, by leveraging public schools. Once again this achievement can be ascribed the continuity of a high-quality public schooling system among Jewish communities throughout the ages.

Two takeways:

1. Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic all have in common that they were native languages for some, and link languages for many.
2. The point is that the divergence between a classic and vulgar/demotic versions of a language can not only be slowed, but it can be reversed!

So you may want, in your story, to include periodic restoration episodes, where the Academy of the Bran (or whatever organization you put in charge of the language) brings back the vulgar language to track, by formalizing and decluttering it, and admitting new vocabulary and possibly new grammatical forms, all while maintaining backward compatibility.

The public school system is always, always the transmission belt.

My hypothesis: You need a static culture where not much changes generation over generation. The times when human languages have been stable are the times when the populations are isolated and not much has happened, so there’s little need to introduce new words for new concepts and no pressure to improve previous communication mechanisms.

I do not have citations to support the above statement. It is a perception of mine based mostly on what I know of English language development. Fleshing it out into a proper answer would require significant research time.

• actually isolated population increase changes in language. just look at the gullah language.
– John
Apr 14 '20 at 3:59
• @John - Gullah is a creole, so it started different. As near as I can tell, it hasn't changed much since its inception, and what change has occurred has been put down to it starting out as a creole. From WP: "Although some scholars argue that Gullah has changed little since the 19th century and that most speakers have always been bilingual, it is likely that at least some decreolization has taken place" Apr 15 '20 at 19:08

There are a some existing languages that drifted much less than others and they all have something in common: They were not used in the everyday life but rather were reserved for official use. Typically, in a country where each region has its own vernacular and where it's their mother language and the language they use most of the time. You will have an additional language that's used by the authorities for everything of national importance (for example laws) or when communicating through different regions in order to understand each other.

This language will therefore be learned more rigidly, mostly stay written and won't be used commonly, so variations of it won't be transmitted.

Languages like Italian or Mandarin are examples of this in some measure.

• Written Chinese has changed a lot over the last 150 years. People now write vernacular Chinese rather than classical Chinese. Even the form of most characters has changed.
– Jan
Apr 14 '20 at 13:43
• Traditional characters are still in use in some places (Hong-Kong and Taiwan) and is still understood by most readers. Plus, the change is only a modern one. And the structure of the language, the grammar, is the same. Apr 18 '20 at 10:34
• Yes, and because Chinese has not changed so much, a popular tale written down less than 300 years ago needs one explaining footnote every ten characters plus a translation into modern Chinese in order to be understood by modern readers: baike.baidu.com/item/%E7%94%BB%E7%9A%AE/8692546
– Jan
Apr 18 '20 at 14:15
• I would also claim that German grammar has not changed that much since the time of the Hildebrandslied. That does not mean that any of that text is understandable to average modern readers. In fact grammatical similarities are one of the justifications for establishing an Indo-European language family, so it might be possible that grammar sometimes changes relative slowly even if other aspects of languages change a lot.
– Jan
Apr 18 '20 at 14:27

I'm going to suggest something a bit different to the other answers, though it may not be appropriate for your particular world.

It's based on the idea that for homo sapiens our intelligence evolved before our technology. Your world doesn't need to follow the same pattern. Your technology can develop with your intelligence. In this case your language is genetically hard coded.

Our intelligence hasn't evolved significantly in the last 50000 years. We know this because particular branches of humanity have until only recently been spit up for that long with basically no contact and it's obvious we all have the same capacity for intelligence despite the split.

But 50000 year ago we only had basic tools and didn't even have agriculture. Therefore we know our intelligence preceded our technology. Some theorize this is because language is intelligence.

You don't need to take this whole idea onboard, but simply follow the part where the tool evolved with the intelligence. In this case, your species specific language is a function of genetics. They don't learn language like us, they are born with it. New words are added due to new genetic combinations, starting in close family units, and spreads only if it gives a significant advantage to survival and propagation. Development is going to take a lot longer for this species, but language will also be much more stable.